I remember there was one class in high school that terrified me. I avoided that class, was intimidated by the kids who actually chose to take that class. It wasn't algebra, or geometry or trigonometry - it was creative writing .
How do just be... creative ? How do you that? I meet people now - out of the business - who are in abject admiration of someone who can sit down...and just... create .
But now? Now I find it so easy now that I wonder why I was every frightened of it in the first place.
First of all creating stories is a lot like daydreaming, but with your fingers on a keyboard. You want the conduit between your imagination and the page to be as unobstructed as possible. You want it to flow. You want that page to become an extension of your imagination. And you should really try to enjoy yourself - even if you're writing drama or tragedy - you will enjoy yourself.
And maybe something will come out of it. Maybe not. But I thought of putting together some hints and cheats that'll make it easy.
But before we get the Hints and Cheats - I'll preface his with a few suggestions.
It's a computer term actually, and it mean Garbage In, Garbage Out. Another appropriate adage - pretty much the same thing is - You Can't Get Blood From a Stone - or the slightly more popular "You Can't Get Blood From a Turnip" - the point is - if you live in a cave you won't have much of a bank from which to make creative withdrawls - and you're gonna end up writing very simple cave stories.
Open yourself to books and magazines and ideally as diverse an arena as possibly. Indulge in knowledge. Random bits of information can always come in handy. The point is - that all this input provides mucho grist for the mill. Ideas don't come out of thin air.
You may actually entire stories, and if not that - characters and dialogue and will find. The newspaper is a constant daily source - and not an issue goes by without at least one good idea for a movie. The Patty Hearst kidnapping was the basis of Ruthless People (Despite the fact that many critics said it was an adaptation of O'Henry's Ransom of Red Chief - I can see why they'd think that - but it wasn't.)
PHONEBOOK AS FONT OF CHARACTERS AND CONFLICTS
Hopefully you will have some friends and acquaintances. Get out your phonebook and start with the "A" and ask yourself to come up with at least three identifying personality traits for each person. If you come up with more that's not a problem. But create a list. Also ask yourself what this person might put in as their list. Or how they would like others to see them. And do they have quirks? Do they sing to themselves? Do they hate something about themselves?
Here's a sample list.
Now when this list hits a hundred or so (you can add to it over time - especially when you meet new people who stick out in your head) this can be a nice list to go over when you're trying to flesh out a character.
But here's where you can have some real fun with it. Come up with contrary traits. Instant conflict! Just imagine these people meeting? Or sitting next to each on a plane! Or in a restaurant or whatever...
Sexy wife/Mousy Wife
A good example of this process is politics. How spin doctors take something, spin it a certain way, veer it into the direction they want. This is exactly how a story evolves. Here are some practical spins with some examples. And we're going to start with cliches, spin them and alter them genetically.
SPIN #1 - REALITY.
As a spin, the truth is the best spin of all. You can take a bullshit idea, a cliche, spin it towards the truth (go to the light!) and it just about makes anything fresh and smart. Some dare call it truth , but that word is so mis-used these days, let's just stick to reality. So, take a cliche, any cliche, then add varying degrees of reality. Say we had that cop movie with that detective who has these hunches that often turn out to be true? Now, apply reality, if this cop has hunches that turn out to be true, consistently true, this cop isn't just smart, this cop is fucking clairvoyant . I don't believe in such things, it actually has nothing to do with reality, but in reality, if someone had hunches that often turn out to be true, well, think about it. When the first hunch comes true, everybody'd be pretty impressed. The second one, well, could be lucky, but when the third hunch, this isn't just luck, but it's a pattern, and the fourth hunch? Well, what about that grizzled supervisor who's always riding him? Add reality. In the real world that supervisor wouldn't be at odds with him, quite the contrary, he would probably be in awe of him and treat him with tremendous respect. And go to him with every problem.
The next cliche would have the other detective being jealous of him and shunning him, giving him a hard time.
They might be a little jealous, but they're not going to shun him. This guy is awesome. This guy is a demi-god. A rock star. They're not just very impressed, they're going to want to hang out with him. They're going to come to him with cases that have normal men stumped.
And...well, let's add a little more reality. Clairvoyance doesn't really exist, so let's make him just a little less clairvoyant. Say he doesn't get it all the time, just some of the time. And it's not predictable. There seems to be a random element involved. Sometimes he's right, but not everytime, and maybe he gets it wrong a few times, and then, sometimes, he's right. It's variable, unpredictable.
By the way - a good indicator of bad writing is that a bad writer will often add artificial conflict EVERYWHERE and it's not realistic. Development executives tend do this to. They'll say RAISE THE JEOPARDY! Everything has to be life or death (which is just a hamfisted way of trying to improve a story). Well get to this in a second. With another kind of spin.
Let's get back to our clairvoyant cop. Add more reality. After a few years of these hunches, word would spread, and he'd probably be farmed out to other departments. He might be courted by bigger, more cosmopolitan cities. And I'm sure the FBI would be interested and so would the CIA.
You can always take a bad cliche. He comes home and the CIA is waiting for him and they take him away and lock him up in some underground complex - and use him like a caged up chicken, and use him like a machine.
Bullshit. Truth is - they would court the guy, offer him money, fix him up with actresses, wine and dine him. And he's get fat and lazy.
We can take this story anywhere. But I suggest you just spin and KEEP IT LOOSE, don't make any commitments yet, if you do, you risk structuring yourself away from a better story opportunity. Those are ideas and you may or may not make use of them. Don't decide yet.
But since we're onto cliche, we move onto the next spin.
SPIN #2 REVERSE THE CLICHE. (This is very good for comedy).
Take the cliche of the grizzled supervising police captain. And reverse it. Spin it around 180 degrees. What's the reverse of grizzled, constantly on your ass cop? How about a sensitive, warm, caring supervisor? And add reality. Sensitive, but real. He's caring. He talks to his men and asks them about the family, the kids how are you feeling? How's it going? Always giving positive comments. When one of his cops is real stressed out, when he's talking to him he gives the cop a little shoulder massage.
He takes management classes. He wants to work out any problems you might have.
The reverse spin, by the way, is almost a part of human nature. A kind of punk-ish contrariness. A lot of times a new generation looks at the old generation such respect, that reverence quickly turns to intimidation - and a voice deep down inside says "I can't do that" - but they deny the voice and instead - you come up with a form of denial - that's not really so great - and you want to break it down and something "new" and "fresh" - and besides - you can't just do the same old thing, you have to do it different, and you find a way to do what you can do - and justify it. And guess what? It works. Question authority! It's a lazy way to make art, but you can still get there.
SPIN #3. TAKE IT FURTHER, just spin it out and keep spinning it out and see what you get. This works especially well with comedy in which case you spin it out further and further until you reach some kind of philosophical limit, some kind of critical mass and you'll know when you get there, because when you get there, you will make yourself laugh. And if you temper it with reality, and voila - you have smart comedy.
So let's take our sensitive police captain - and spin it further - maybe he's REAL sensitive. Maybe he wants to put together Robert Bly like men groups. Men go out and bond. Spin it a little further. Maybe...something happens that makes him very emotional and he cries. He cries a lot. Maybe he's going through some kind of therapy - like primal therapy where you have to experience the pain of the moment or it will forever haunt your psyche, unresolved, creating neurosis. He has to feel these emotions. Maybe it's something that makes him sad, or maybe when he's very happy. It could be a little tear, or if you're going for over the top comedy, he could break down and sob. If it's always measured against reality, you'll keep it smart. (I try to do that, but directors, comedy directors and in this case komedy with a K want to do something, anything to be creative, so I find whenever they get a chance, they push it, they might take the tear to a sob.) But back to the story of the cop. How will the detectives react to their captain's sensitivity? If you add reality. They'd probably get a little embarrassed. What would the cliche be? Well, it's too fresh to be a cliche. But you could always put the reverse spin on it and see what you have. Instead of being embarrassed, they're touched, even proud of their captain's ability to emote. Maybe it's like yawning "Uh oh, he's going to cry" and they're so then they have to cry with him. Maybe they're so sympathetic, they cry too.
So you can see how much fun you can have with these "spins".
Back to Patty Hearst and Ruthless People. When she was kidnapped. What did she do? She joined her kidnappers! She was helping them rake her father over the coals?! There's a twist! This is a classic "reversal" - and if you take it the right direction - it could be funny.
Some guy's wife is kidnapped. Normally a devastating event, but add some special circumstances - and spin it, and instead of being devastated, he's...delighted? Okay, why would be delighted? What if hated his wife? Spin it further . What if he loathed her? Spin further ! What if he wanted to kill her? SPIN IT FURTHER! He's going to kill his wife, and goes home to kill her, and she's been kidnapped ! Funny.
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